The Oxford Culture Review

Pseudonyms, puzzles and privacy

Two weeks ago, yet another attempt was made to pin down Elena Ferrante, an Italian author known as much for her pseudonym as she is for her writing. This time, the detective was Marco Santagata, a professor at the University of Pisa. After studying Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, Santagata combed through student yearbooks that matched the setting of the novel. His conclusion was that Ferrante was Marcella Marmo, a scholar of contemporary history at the University of Naples Federico II. Marmo denied the claim, as did Ferrante’s publishers, and so the search goes on.

This failed effort follows several more successful unmaskings. Earlier this month, scientists at Queen Mary University of London used geographic profiling to track down Banksy, seemingly confirming suspicions that his real name was Robin Gunningham. When dubstep producer Burial’s second album, Untrue, was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2007, it stoked interest in the musician’s identity. Aphex Twin and Fatboy Slim were among those suspected; the true Burial, William Bevan, was rather less well-known. The most prominent case in recent years, though, was the discovery that crime writer Robert Galbraith was actually the pen name of J. K. Rowling.

Image taken from the album cover for Burial’s ‘Untrue’, drawn by William Bevan

There is clearly much interest in uncovering the people behind the pseudonyms, then, but to what end? When academics like Santagata go to great lengths to trace an artist, they justify their actions by positioning their discovery as a public good. Usually, the argument is made that to truly understand an artwork, we must be familiar with the socio-political context and personal conditions of its creator. At times, as with Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels, fact is thought to be posing as fiction. Elsewhere, as with the Banksy study, the dangers of artistic anonymity are stressed.

Whatever line of reasoning is given, though, the notion that these researchers’ investigations are for the public’s benefit is questionable. The primary appeal is the challenge; working out a hidden identity is an intricate puzzle that provides pleasure. The process could involve building a new statistical methodology, performing forensic linguistic analyses, or inspecting school records from the 1960s, but the same principle remains. Beyond this, unravelling the mystery behind a pseudonym offers an opportunity for personal gain, a chance to make a name for oneself by revealing somebody else’s.

The power imbalance intrinsic to exposing the true identity of an artist is rarely given much thought, but perhaps it should be. Such an act disregards an individual’s choice to use a false name in the first place. Pushing that person into public view may compromise their safety, security or comfort. It will also inevitably alter the reception of their work, whether through inviting comparisons to the artist’s back catalogue, or through subjecting him or her to the harmful effects of racism, sexism, classism, and genre norms. That Rowling decided to write her Cormoran Strike stories under a male pen name is telling.

J. K. Rowling, image by Reuters

Some would argue that sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling’s first novel as Robert Galbraith, rocketed once the secret was out: what did she have to complain about? But Rowling was not seeking to hit the bestsellers lists again. She wanted to live the experience of being a fledgling author once more. That opportunity was snatched from her, and the perception of Galbraith’s work permanently shifted. The Cuckoo’s Calling’s “feminine” descriptions of clothing were pointed to as a tell-tale sign that the book had been written by a woman all along.

But The Cuckoo’s Calling was never intended to be read as a novel by J. K. Rowling. Galbraith was a new persona, who wrote in a different style to the author of the Harry Potter series. Syntactical similarities may have lurked beneath the surface, but it took a group of experts to draw them out. Readers would never have reached the same conclusion unaided. When Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet, wrote in one of his seventy or so alter-egos, he would refer to the name as a ‘heteronym’. What set these figures apart from pseudonyms, he claimed, was that they had their own biography and narrative voice. Galbraith had both, so why is he considered a gimmick – even a marketing ploy – while Pessoa’s creations are not?

The answer, again, is the obstacle of reputation. Before Galbraith’s cover was blown, Rowling had the opportunity to “publish without hype or expectation”. Ferrante’s alias similarly preserves “a space of absolute creative freedom”. When the allure of a tricky puzzle is valued over the artist’s privacy, such a space is violated. This removal of anonymity usually makes little difference to audience members – the fun is to be found in the question, not the answer – but has an irreparable impact on the individual involved. There is good reason not to pursue pseudonyms so persistently. An artist’s selfhood is better left pending than penned in.

John Wadsworth